Twitter's 'Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’ fiasco: Sanghapali Aruna, Barkha Dutt, others give their account of events

On Sunday, a picture of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey posing with a placard (designed by artist Thenmozhi Soundararajan) reading 'Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’ went viral.

FP Staff November 22, 2018 12:21:43 IST
Twitter's 'Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’ fiasco: Sanghapali Aruna, Barkha Dutt, others give their account of events

On Sunday, a picture of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey posing with a placard (designed by artist Thenmozhi Soundararajan) reading 'Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’ went viral. What followed was a collective meltdown on the part of a large number of social media users. There were people attacking Dorsey, calling him a racist, a bigot and everything in between; there were some asking, not very nicely, what 'Brahminical Patriarchy' was or proclaiming that such a thing didn't exist. There were calls to boycott the micro-blogging platform, on the platform. Equally loud were people on the other side of the argument who said that the man did nothing wrong, explaining what 'Brahminical Patriarchy' was all about. Soon the exchanges turned into absurd "arguments" and name calling.

Now, one might pass this off as just another day on Twitter, but Dorsey was not in India for just another visit. He was here as part of a PR campaign, meeting everyone from politicians to celebrities, and was now witnessing a disaster of unprecedented proportions for such a visit. Soon enough, the company released a statement saying that the picture was from a "closed door discussion" and the placard "not a statement from Twitter or our CEO". It is understandable that a company as big as Twitter would rush out to put out the fires, while also trying to not offend any of its user bases. But there appear to be contradictory accounts from those who were invited to the meet and the statement put out by the company.

Twitters Smash Brahminical Patriarchy fiasco Sanghapali Aruna Barkha Dutt others give their account of events

Jack Dorsey posing with a placard. image courtesy Twitter/@annavetticad

What really happened at the meeting and how did a "private photo" trigger so many people collectively? Since the incident, various people present at the time when the photograph was taken have put out their version of what happened at the meeting and the reaction that followed online. This includes activist Sanghapali Aruna, a Dalit activist who presented Dorsey the poster at the centre of the debate; journalists Rituparna Chatterjee and Barkha Dutt; journalist Anna MM Vetticad, who first shared the photograph on her Twitter; and of course, the employees of Twitter India.

Sanghapali Aruna

Writing for Firstpost, Aruna says that the poster was just a distraction, "For the real threat for trolls was my presence there in that room, an educated Dalit woman advocating for the safety of Indian caste-oppressed communities. If any lesson is to be learned from this, it is that an educated Dalit woman who knows her community's rights and fights for it is in fact the greatest threat to Brahminical Patriarchy."

Recounting the sequence of events, she writes that she was part of a closed-door discussion with Dorsey. "The meeting was one of several meetings that Dorsey attended on his trip and was organised by Twitter India to better understand the challenges for women and vulnerable minority communities for India especially on the eve of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

The objective of the meeting was to discuss our experience of using Twitter, as journalists, activists, women and minorities, and raise issues related to the routine harassment and trolling we face on the platform. It was also important for me that the conversation did not simply stop at trolling, but that we talk frankly about how trolling is part of an ecosystem of hate speech and disinformation."

She says that giving her testimony at that meeting was a way to name the systemic violence Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Ravidassias, Buddhists and other religious and cultural communities face every day on the website. "From casteist, Islamophobic, and anti-Christian slurs to outright calls for violence, we face unspeakable amounts of harassment on the platform without any recourse, for the platform currently provides no way to report casteist hate speech and its algorithm is as yet untrained to recognise casteist slurs.

At the end of the meeting, I presented Dorsey the poster that has now become the subject of national debate. The poster was part of a series of posters co-designed by our friend and Dalit sister Thenmozhi Soundararajan in 2016. The poster was intended as a gift, an act of sharing contemporary Dalit culture, as an artifact of solidarity and empathy that reflects the beauty of resilience of Dalit Bahujan Adivasi people."

"That Dorsey held the poster in the group was an unintended consequence and not an act of political opportunism. It was what I suspect to be a human act on the part of the Twitter CEO, who was moved by the meeting and all of our testimonies.." she further adds.

You can Aruna's full statement here.

Rituparna Chatterjee

Recounting what had happened, Chatterjee says that Twitter had hosted an off-the-record meeting with seven women at the Twitter office in Delhi. "The objective of the meeting was to hear Indian women’s experiences of using Twitter as a platform to highlight their opinions and the problems they faced with respect to online harassment."

She writes, "During the course of the meeting, several important points were raised, including the serious issue of Twitter falling short of addressing sexual harassment, loosely termed as trolling, on its platform. It’s important to note that while some of us knew each other from before, many of us met for the first time on the panel. We each took turns describing our individual experiences on Twitter, including our positive experiences, while Dorsey and the Twitter team listened intently and patiently.

She writes how they were given permission to share the photograph in question which was clicked by a Twitter India employee. She also disputes Twitter India's claim that it was a "private photo". "Each one of us highlighted the gaps in Twitter’s algorithm in addressing abusive trolling. At the end of the meeting, the Dalit activist who was part of the discussion, gifted the Twitter CEO a poster which he (Dorsey) held while posing for a group photo. The photo was clicked by a Twitter India employee and which we were given permission to share. Some of the panelists were reluctant to post the group photo in public while others exercised their agency in sharing it. Most weren’t even aware that the poster, gifted moments ago, was in the frame. But at no point was any of the Twitter team members asked to acknowledge the poster or share it. It was their choice alone. It wasn’t a private photo as suggested. We were frankly heartened by the positive and empathetic response we received from the Twitter team in actively listening to our concerns and promising to act on them."

She added that the statement by the company was a little disappointing because, "while business concerns are real for a company like Twitter, elsewhere in the world they stand up for what’s right."

You can read Chatterjee's full statement here.

Barkha Dutt

Dutt, citing "how poorly Twitter India has handled its meeting with a group of women journalists and more so, because it has been so dishonest about it", took to Twitter to recount her version of the events. In a series of tweets, she said that the group was invited to share our experience of abuse and trolling on Twitter India and given a few minutes each to make their points.

"When the Dalit activist pointed out that Caste was to India what Race is to America and asked why Twitter did not see caste slurs as abuse @vijaya [Vijaya Gadde, a Twitter employee] broke into tears and apologised to this invitee. We were all a bit taken aback but reassured that Twitter was sincere."

She writes that she did not see any poster at the group conversation either before the meeting, during or after it. She did not notice it with Dorsey either. Again, contrary to the company stand, she says that "It is important to note that the photo itself was both taken by and mailed to the group by a staff member of Twitter India and we were specifically encouraged to tweet it. I did not but want to underline that @vijaya [Gadde] is untruthful in calling it a "private photo" given who sent it."

She also adds that from everything she knows now, Aruna never asked Dorsey to pose with the poster, and the "decision was his and his alone".

Anna MM Vetticad (along with Nilanjana S Roy, Rituparna Chatterjee and Sanghapali Aruna, who were also present at the meeting)

In a collective statement posted on her Twitter account, which recalls the events on similar lines of that of Dutt, Vetticad said that Twitter had asked the participants for the meeting to be off-the-record to allow everyone involved to be as candid as possible. "The objective of the meeting was to hear our experiences of using the platform, to highlight how women's movements and groups had used Twitter, and to share concerns about women's safety and online harassment," the statement read.

"On hearing this [Aruna's account], Vijaya Gadde broke down in tears, and apologised for not having thought of this herself. Though we were all surprised by her reaction and her apparent lack of awareness about caste, we took it as an indicator of her sensitivity to the concerns being expressed".

"At the meeting, the Dalit rights activist gifted the Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey two posters, one of which, the rest of us have subsequently learnt, said, “End Caste Apartheid” while the other said “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy”. Dorsey chose to hold the poster saying “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy” while posing for a group photo.

"The photo was clicked by a Twitter employee, it was mailed to us and we were told it could be shared. It comes as a disappointment to all of us dealing with the abuse, harassment and legal threats that we are facing now, that Vijaya Gadde has, in a Twitter apology, chosen to claim that the photo was a “private photo”, has apologised to handles alleging that we were instigating hate, and — in sharp contrast to her emotional, apologetic response at that private meeting — publicly distanced herself from Dalit and gender concerns.

This is also in sharp contrast to Twitter's strong stand in favour of women and marginalised communities in other countries. Twitter's misrepresentation and half-truths are the only reason why we have felt compelled to take the unusual step of issuing this statement.

We made it clear during the discussion that we were against any individuals — irrespective of their political or caste affiliations — who actively threaten women. We call on Twitter to step up and not capitulate to bigotry, disinformation and bullying, and to address in serious terms the problem of trolls threatening the life and liberty of scores of women and marginalised communities (including Dalits and religious minorities) online."

Twitter India  Twitter India issued an apology which stated: "Recently, we hosted a closed-door discussion with a group of women journalists and changemakers from India to better understand their experience using Twitter. One of the participants, a Dalit activist, shared her personal experiences and gifted a poster to Jack." The tweet also said that while the statement itself was not from the CEO or Twitter itself, it depicted the "company's efforts to see, hear, and understand all sides of important public conversations that happen on our service around the world."

While its employees maintained that the photograph was taken as a "private photo with a gift just given to us" and they should have been more thoughtful.

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